OK, here comes the flood. The ongoing rumors about paper and glue being on the way out as literature-transmission vectors have lacked one major thing to back them up: actual literature, by marquee-name authors, that you can only get on a computer. Last year, Neal Stephenson stuck up a very long essay about Linux, “In the Beginning Was the Command Line,” at cryptonomicon.com, and subsequently offered it as a p-&-g book for 10 bucks (despite the fact that anyone who’d be interested in the subject could download it for free). More recently, Stephen King’s e-commerce experiments with Riding the Bullet and The Plant have been relatively successful. Until now, though, that’s been about it.
But the major publishers are warming to the idea of bypassing the hassle and expense of producing objects. Random House is launching the electronic imprint AtRandom, whose initial list of titles (due early next year) looks pretty marginal: Just to give you an idea, it includes an advice book by Elizabeth Wurtzel. Time Warner’s ipublish.com is launching this month, and though they’re hedging their bets (most of their titles are repackaged print books by the likes of Nicholas Sparks), the initial list does include one pleasant surprise: an electronic demi-original by David Foster Wallace, his extended essay about the week he spent on the road with John McCain’s primary campaign back in February.
Wallace has a large and articulate community of fans on the Web, but it’s weird that an early download-only book from a well-known capital-L Literary type is by him, given the opening “Note From the Electronic Editor,” which states that the author “doesn’t so much get this e-book thing” and isn’t quite clear on what hyperlinks are. The point of publishing Up, Simba! this way seems to be that it wouldn’t work as p-&-g: By the time it made it to stores, the election would be history, and one of Wallace’s central points is a rather desperate call to young people to get out there and vote. In any case, the book’s written to a sort of ‘tweener length that’s too long for a magazine article but would make for a mighty slim paperback on its own. Even so, I can’t imagine that anyone who downloads it will be doing anything but printing it out on paper and hauling the physical product around: It’s hard to read something on a Handspring Visor when a single sentence takes up seven or eight screens.
At some level, Up, Simba! (named after a cameraman’s pronouncement as he lifts his rig) is Wallace-the-essayist operating on automatic—there’s an air of “from the people who brought you ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again’ and ‘Getting Away From Already Being Pretty Much Away From It All’ “about it. You throw Wallace at something for a week, then you let him start typing, and you end up with a long, funny essay with unmistakably stylized tone and diction and form. He’s dynamite at it, but there’s something missing: One of the best things about his fiction is the way he invents styles to fit stories, and he never does that with his essays. Instead, he’s got a comfortable routine, a sleepless, wildly digressive cloud of impressions in place of a narrative or a diary—he very rarely indicates exactly when something’s happening, or that things are happening in any kind of order. A much shorter version of U, S! originally ran in Rolling Stone; you can see why they were able to cut it by about half.
What carries Wallace through U, S!‘s disorganized blur (and allows him eventually to dock somewhere near the arguments he wants to make) is his flabbergasting verbal agility: astonishing card-castles of words and punctuation, technical argot and sassy notebook abbreviations nestling next to grand diction. Would any other American writer dare a sentence like this one, about the way McCain’s P.O.W. internment created his image? “And but now the paradox here is that this box that makes McCain ‘real’ is: impenetrable.” He’s great with little set pieces, too. A glossary of campaign-trail jargon is an obvious opportunity for cheap laughs, but he makes it funnier by underselling it; a catalog of events on the schedule becomes another occasion for pyrotechnics (“Congressman Lindsey Graham Hosts Weird BBQ for a Lot of Flinty-Eyed Men in Down Vests and Trucker’s Hats in Seneca SC”).
Wallace’s best trick, though, is the perfect word that comes out of nowhere, as when McCain strategist Mike Murphy gives an uppity reporter “a long styptic look.” Styptic. When’s the last time that word didn’t refer to a pencil? He’s so confident of his powers that he even plays rope-a-dope games with his readers. Two-thirds of the way through U, S!, there’s a chokingly bulky 400-plus-word syntactical gnarl with no periods to break it up, detailing a long series of tiny campaign-ad waltz steps. It culminates by mentioning a bold propagandistic gesture that “hits the media like a syringe of Narcan,” and all of a sudden we’re off again. (And the identification of the precise drug is so Wallace.)
Wallace is occasionally mistaken for a pomo ironist, generally by people who have not actually read one of his books or can’t get past the casino glitter of his prose style. In fact, he’s as serious a moralist as, say, Tom Wolfe; he’s just interested in finding moral gravity in unexpected places. Which means he’s got a pretty serious crush on McCain’s public persona—the candidate’s war heroism counts for a lot with Wallace, because it gives his campaign-trail boilerplate about truth and sacrifice actual weight. But Wallace also makes the crucial distinction between admiring the pitch (and the seriousness and honesty it represents, or appears to represent) and what McCain is actually selling, which he dispatches with a swift blow to the sternum: “That John S. McCain III opposed making Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday in AZ, or that he thinks clear-cut logging is good for America, or that he feels our present gun laws are not clinically insane—this stuff counts for nothing with these Town Hall crowds, all on their feet, cheering their own ability to finally really fucking cheer.”
Ultimately, he can’t quite bring himself to believe in McCain, mostly because he can’t get a handle on what’s behind the image. U, S! becomes a profile of the campaigning process— and of what exactly it takes to get the electorate to care about a candidate—rather than of the candidate himself. McCain’s departure from the race doesn’t make U, S! any less timely. As the election looms, it probably wouldn’t hurt to make it available to people without high-speed Internet connections, either.